Saturday, June 13, 2009

E! Spins "Kendra" Off of "The Girls Next Door," But I Have No Idea Why

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

When E! announced that Kendra Wilkinson of the network's "The Girls Next Door" would be given her own spinoff, "Kendra" (new episodes air Sundays at 10 p.m. Eastern), my reaction was: Why? Believe it or not, I did watch "The Girls Next Door." I didn't TiVo it, and I certainly missed more than a few episodes, but if it was on when I was flipping around, I'd watch. The idea of getting a peek behind the walls of the Playboy mansion, and the chance to see how Hugh Hefner interacted with his three, much-younger, blonde girlfriends, was more than my guy instincts could resist.

The thing about "The Girls Next Door" is that it was kind of interesting. With Hef in the background as an eccentric father figure/playboy (small "p"), the series focused on the three women that shared him: "Main" girlfriend Holly Madison, the combination party girl/mother hen who had a knack for keeping things running; Bridget Marquardt, the 30something free spirit with a masters degree; and Wilkinson, the super young (barely 20 when the show began) silicon-aided bimbo. What made "The Girls Next Door" worth watching was that Madison and Marquardt were not the two-dimensional airheads that Playboy detractors would imagine them to be. With their relationship with each other (they were close), their relationships with Hef (Madison seemed like his true mate, while Marquardt seemed more like a very close friend of the family), and their life interests (Madison wanted to have a baby with Hef and took an interest in directing photo spreads in the magazine, while Marquardt pursued a career as a television personality), they were fairly real (for reality television, anyway) people who viewers could understand, and maybe even to whom they could relate at times. The fact that Madison and Marquardt weren't just airheaded bimbos is what made "The Girls Next Door" more than just a one-joke train wreck. You actually could see a bit how the relationships could all work.

At the end of last season, Wilkinson decided to move out of the mansion after five years (and reveal that she had fallen in love with NFL player Hank Baskett), and Marquardt also took her leave, having secured hosting duties on the Travel Channel's "Bridget's Sexiest Beaches," leaving Madison alone in the house with Hef. News soon broke that Madison and Hef had broken up, and Hef had taken on a trio of new girlfriends (including 19-year-old twin sisters). Rather than focus on Hef's new companions (and keep shooting in the mansion with its familiar staff, especially the stalwart secretary/house mother Mary), or to track Madison's post-Hef existence (since she is the one of the three who truly experienced the breakup of a romantic relationship), E! decided instead to hand a show to the least interesting and least likable person in the house: Wilkinson.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised. With her dyed hair, fake breasts and heavy makeup, Wilkinson is the stereotypical "hot" girl, even if she is, if you look at her closely, not at all pretty. (As an aside, I fully admit that most guys, especially those younger than me, will think that Wilkinson was the babe of the house, but I'm sure I'm not alone in finding her far less attractive than Marquardt and Madison.) But once you get beyond the surface-level sex appeal, Wilkinson is more than the cypher the vacant look in her eyes would indicate, but, actually, is an exceptionally unintelligent and unappetizing personality. In fact, at one point in the first episode of "Kendra," her friend Brittany remarks that Wilkinson looks like Barbie (she means it as a compliment). It's an easy jump to make, since she's blonde, buxom and thin. But I thought to myself that the Barbie character could actually do stuff (since she had so many career outfits), whereas Wilkinson is more like the actual doll -- useless.

"Kendra" will concentrate on Wilkinson's new life outside of the mansion, and her engagement to Baskett, who seems like a decent enough guy. The first episode revolves around two events: Wilkinson's house-warming party and her visit with Baskett to the mansion so he can meet Hef. The first half (the move-in and party) is every bit as undramatic as it sounds. Bridget gets drunk, acts really glad to see her guests (like once-semi-famous rapper Too $hort, because, she says, it will make the party "more pimp"), plays around on her stripper pole (she had one installed before she even had furniture, because she thought it was more important), and is grossed out when one of her two little dogs poops on the floor. Or, put another way, the program had none of the qualities that made "The Girls Next Door" worth watching. It was pure trash with no substance, and nobody that you actually gave a crap about (you feel bad for Hef and Marquardt, who both looked unhappy at the party, and seem to have stayed for only a little while, possibly not even crossing paths with each other).

When Wilkinson and Baskett visited Hef, the episode got a bit more interesting, but only to the extent of watching how Hef reacted. It is interesting (and creepy) how he is, at once, a father figure and former sexual partner to Wilkinson, with Baskett clearly trying to take the mature high road and concentrate on the paternal aspect of the relationship. The visit was awkward and revealing, with Hef both moved and a bit addled. Watching Hef and Baskett trying to bond made you feel bad for both of them, but at the same time, Baskett seemed genuinely happy to be in Hef's presence. But more than anything, the trip back to the mansion showed that "Kendra" will be painful viewing when Wilkinson is out of Hef's orbit.

Boring television isn't a sin (in NBC's case, it's a staple ... sorry, I couldn't help myself). But "Kendra" felt more than uninteresting to me. Rather, I got the feeling that I was stuck in an elevator with one of the least likable people I've ever met. From the very beginning, she is off-putting, as she talks about how she is on her own, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she has done nothing other than jump from being a ward of Hef to being the fiance of an NFL player.

Throughout the first episode, time and time again, Wilkinson tells us all the things she can't do. Early on, she says, "I have never done anything, like cook, clean, going shopping, or any of that stuff." When she and Brittany go to the food store, Wilkinson has the wide-eyed innocence of a child walking into a new place for the first time. She rides around in a scooter (which, I'm quite sure, is meant for people who due to age or condition can't walk the aisles) and generally makes a mess of things. When she finds Rice-A-Roni in the aisle with a sign that includes, among many other items, "Hispanic Food," she wonders aloud, "I love Rice-A-Roni. I didn't know it was Mexican food." I'm not sure if this was a genuine moment of ignorance or a line fed to her by a writer who wanted to invoke Jessica Simpson's confusion over whether Chicken of the Sea was poultry or fish, but either way, it was painful to watch. Wilkinson later marvels at how expensive groceries are, which only magnifies how she has lived a kept life, especially at a time when so many viewers are struggling to pay their bills.

She seemingly can't furnish her new house, leaving her clothes all over the floor like an 8th grader with a Jonas Brothers poster on the wall (of course, all of her wall-hangings seem to be of semi-clad women). When she can't even open the box of her new flat-screen television, she says, "Setting up a TV is a man's job." Later, she declares, "I have no idea how to start planning a wedding." And while in a bridal shop with Brittany and her roommate Amber, she asks them to be bridesmaids, telling the camera that she did so because: "I thought they'll bring some sex to my wedding." Later, at the bridal shop, she ruins a finished wedding cake by taking a chunk out of it with her finger, explaining through giggles that she thought it was fake. You'd think that having to look at herself in the mirror everyday, she would be an expert in sussing out what is fake.

She can't do what she sees as men's work, she can't do what she describes as housewives' work, and she doesn't seem to have any other skills, so what can she do? I go back to the Barbie doll analogy. Her propensity to show off her surgically enhanced breasts and her stripper-pole fixation reveal that even Wilkinson herself seems to think she has nothing to offer but her looks. And, to me, that's not near enough to sustain a television show, especially when she's as unlikable as she is.

From Wilkinson's unbelievable shallowness, to her absolute ignorance, to her inability to do anything, to her child-like obliviousness to everything, I don't understand why anyone would want to spend any time with her, even if it's just watching her on television. You have to feel for poor Brittany who says, "I look up to Kendra a lot. If I need advice, she gives it to me." Talk about a recipe for destroying your life.

I am not ashamed to say that I watched "The Girls Next Door," but I am a bit embarrassed to have watched even one episode of "Kendra." I can only hope that the 2.6 million people who tuned in for the premiere (decent numbers for a network like E!) did so out of curiosity, and that the audience will drop as low as Wilkinson's IQ as the season moves forward. If you are a fan of "The Girls Next Door" who can't let go, stick to Marquardt's travel show. It's more entertaining, and you don't feel like you need a shower when the program is over.